A friend who runs an inner-city shelter for drug addicts and homeless people made this observation: "I love evangelicals. You can get them to do anything. The challenge is, you've also got to soften their judgmental attitudes before they can be effective."

I have seen the truth of both statements.

You can indeed get evangelicals to do anything. Last year in Cape Town, I met Joanna Flanders Thomas, a dynamic and attractive woman of mixed race. At the most violent prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela spent several years of confinement, Joanna started visiting prisoners daily, bringing them a simple gospel message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

She earned their trust, got them to talk about their abusive childhoods, and pointed them to a better way of solving conflicts. The year before her visits began, the prison recorded 279 acts of violence; the next year there were two.

Two months later I traveled to Nepal, the world's only Hindu kingdom, a dirt-poor country where the caste system lives on. There I met with leprosy health workers from 15 nations, mostly European, who serve under an evangelical mission specializing in leprosy work. Historically, most of the major advances in leprosy treatment have come from Christian missionaries—mainly because, as my friend put it, "You can get them to do anything." I met well-trained surgeons, nurses, and physical therapists who devote their lives to caring for leprosy victims, many of them of the Untouchable caste. Several of the missionaries had run the Katmandu marathon, and two had taken a wild motorcycle trek across mountains and rivers into neighboring Tibet. None that I met fit the stereotype of "uptight, right-wing evangelicals," yet all would claim the word evangelical.

From Nepal I went to Beijing, China, where I attended an international church, 2,000-strong, comprising members from 60 nations. An African dance troupe led the music that morning, and the rented hotel meeting room rocked. I met diplomats, business executives, an Oxford philosophy professor, and platoons of young evangelicals who had moved to China in order to teach English and in the process communicate their faith to the Chinese.

Later I met representatives from the Chinese underground church. In the last 30 years, despite periodic government crackdowns, the house-church movement has burgeoned into perhaps the largest Christian awakening in history. Some experts estimate that 70 million Chinese now worship in house churches.

One of the leaders met with me even though authorities had explicitly forbidden it. "I'm 89 years old and I've already spent 23 years in prison," he said defiantly. "What are they going to do to me?"

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When I return from such trips and read profiles in Time and Newsweek about U.S. evangelicals, I feel sad. Many Americans view evangelicals as a monolithic voting bloc obsessed with a few moral issues. They miss the vibrancy and enthusiasm, the good-newsness that the word evangelical represents in much of the world. Evangelicals in Africa bring food to prisoners, care for aids orphans, and operate mission schools that train many of that continent's leaders. There, and in Asia and Latin America, evangelicals also manage micro-enterprise loan programs that allow families to buy a sewing machine or a flock of chickens. About a third of the world's 2 billion Christians fall into a category to which the word evangelical applies, a large majority of whom live outside North America and Europe.

A friend of mine visiting a barrio in São Paulo, Brazil, began to feel anxious as he noticed the minions of drug lords patrolling the neighborhood with automatic weapons. The streets narrowed to dirt paths, plastic water pipes dangled overhead, and a snarl of wires tapped power from high-voltage lines. The stench of sewer was everywhere.

Anxiety increased as he noticed that people inside the tin shacks were glowering at him, a suspicious gringo invading their turf. Was he a narc? An undercover cop? Then the chief drug lord of that neighborhood noticed on the back of his T-shirt the logo of a local Pentecostal church. He broke out in a big smile. "O, evangélicos!" he called out, and the scowls turned to smiles. Over the years, that church had extended practical help to the barrio, and now the foreign visitors were joyfully welcomed.

Many U.S. evangelicals, of course, share in that vibrancy. We staff many of the 500 Christian agencies that have sprung up since World War II to combat social problems. Megachurches based on the 17,000-member Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in Southern California are replicating in major cities. A new, hard-to-classify emergent church has evolved to minister to the postmodern generation. In fact, one recent survey revealed that 93 of the top 100 rapidly growing churches in the United States identify themselves as evangelical.

Gang of Moralists

Truly, you can get evangelicals to do anything. The challenge, as my friend emphasized, is that "you've also got to soften their judgmental attitudes before they can be effective."

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When I was writing What's So Amazing About Grace? I conducted an informal survey among airline seatmates and other strangers willing to strike up a conversation. I would ask, "When I say the word evangelical, what comes to mind?"

Often in response I would hear the word against: Evangelicals are against abortion, against pornography, against gay rights. Or, I would hear a name like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, two of the most visible (and political) representatives of evangelicalism. For many, evangelicals were a force to fear—a gang of moralists attempting to impose their will on a pluralistic society.

A journalist working in the New York media told me that editors have no qualms about assigning a Jewish person to a Jewish story, a Buddhist to a Buddhist story, or a Catholic to a Catholic story, but would never assign an evangelical to an evangelical story. Why not? "They're the ones with an agenda."

Evangelicals, according to the New York stereotype, will propagandize and proselytize. You can't trust them. They're judgmental. They have an agenda.

Pollster George Barna found that while 22 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of evangelicals, 23 percent report an unfavorable impression. Much of the reason traces back to the perception of evangelicals as a political force, a perception based on a most checkered history.

Until the 1960s, evangelicals were as likely to be aligned with the Democratic Party as the Republican. Evangelicals led the fight for women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery—and also the opposition to it. (Revivalist George Whitefield in the 18th century justified slavery, and Southern Baptists formed over the right of missionaries to own slaves.)

Evangelicals battled for a constitutional amendment decreeing the prohibition of alcohol, a measure later overturned and now viewed with considerable misgiving. Evangelical African Americans led the civil-rights crusade while some white evangelicals opposed it. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell urged American Christians to buy gold Krugerrands and to promote U.S. reinvestment in South Africa in an effort to shore up the white regime. Evangelicals take a prominent role in championing the death penalty, supporting pro-life legislation, and retaining traditional definitions of marriage.

In short, evangelicals have taken political stances that sometimes appear quixotic, sometimes heroic, and often contradictory.

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Definitions Quandary

Increasingly, U.S. evangelicals have allied themselves with conservative politics. Many rallied around Ronald Reagan, the nation's first divorced President, who rarely attended church and gave little to charity, while viewing with suspicion Jimmy Carter—a devoutly religious President who taught a Baptist Sunday school class throughout his term in office.

To complicate matters, many evangelicals in places like the United Kingdom and New Zealand align themselves with liberal political parties, believing their Christian commitment enjoins them to seek government help for the poor and to oppose war. And in China, many whom we would identify as evangelical see no contradiction in their support for the world's largest Communist government.

According to author Randall VanderMey, "Evangelicals tend to view the church not as a giant ship so much as a fleet of rowboats and boogie boards, with each individual in search of an authentic personal experience with God." As we have seen, politics hardly offers the appropriate labels to slap on evangelicals. What descriptors might apply, then?

The British historian David Bebbington suggests this overall summary of evangelical distinctives:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a "born again" experience.

Activism: the expression of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.

Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority.

Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

Under this overarching description, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox can be evangelicals even while remaining within denominational structures that might shirk the term. The National Association of Evangelicals bars denominations that are members of the National Council of Churches, and yet many of those denominations have constituents who gladly call themselves evangelicals.

As a writer, I have found that by sticking to Bebbington's four distinctives, especially his emphasis on the Bible, I have a wide range of freedom. When readers complain, I reply that I am not the radical; Jesus is. He sought out prostitutes and sinners, in the process attracting violent opposition from the religious establishment of his day. As he departed, he prayed that his followers would not be removed from the world, charging them instead to live in its midst as salt and light.

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Essential Tenets

After spending several decades working within evangelicalism, I would summarize its essential tenets in three statements:

This is our Father's world. Evangelicals believe that God created the world and lavished it with care. Any residue of goodness on the planet reflects God's "common grace": the sun shines and rain falls both on those who believe and on those who don't. All pleasure, including beauty, sexuality, art, and work, are God's gifts to us, and we look to God's revelation for the pattern in best ordering our desires so that in them we may find fulfillment and not bondage.

As an expression of love for the world, God entered its history (the Incarnation) and gave the Son's life as a sacrifice for its redemption (the Atonement). Its emphasis on Jesus and the Cross separates Christianity from all other religions, and evangelicals hold fast to that distinctive.

In the mystery of the Trinity, God was "in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" (the apostle Paul's words). Evangelicals recognize that the world has been invaded by evil and believe that Christ began a process of reclamation. In that thrust the church plays a crucial role that will culminate in a final victory.

On one of Karl Barth's visits to Union Seminary in New York, someone asked him what he would say if he met Adolf Hitler. He replied, "Jesus Christ died for your sins."

Our emphasis on conversion stems from a profound belief that, as Paul put it, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief." Almost every message delivered by evangelist Billy Graham centered on that theme. And yet Graham himself insisted that a stress on getting right with God does not imply a faith "so heavenly minded that it does no earthly good." Quite the contrary.

Through the power of the Spirit, followers of Jesus advance God's kingdom in the world. Karl Barth also said, "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." Yes, and in recent years evangelicals have increasingly recognized the corresponding need sometimes to unclasp those hands and lead the uprising against that disorder.

Sociologists in Latin America have documented how the act of conversion can lead to significant social change. (See, for example, Base Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil, by Warren Hewitt.) A man goes forward to receive Christ at an evangelistic meeting. He joins a local church, which counsels him to stop getting drunk on weekends. With their help, he does so. He starts showing up at work on Monday mornings, and eventually gets promoted to foreman. With new faith and a renewed sense of worth, he stops beating his wife and becomes a better father to his children. Newly empowered, his wife takes a job that allows her to afford education for her children. Multiply that by several scores of converted citizens, and soon the economic base of the entire village rises.

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As one who has been nurtured by evangelicalism, I hope we retain the spirit leading a movement that has proven to be light on its feet, willing to self-correct, and is above all committed to follow Jesus—"who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through his poverty, might become rich, and who has left us an example that we should follow in his steps."

Philip Yancey is a CT editor at large. Reprinted with permission from his introduction to The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity, by Wendy Murray Zoba, published in June by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Related Elsewhere:

The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.

More information is available from the publisher.

Archives of Philip Yancey's regular column is available from our website. More of Yancey's writing for CT includes:

Holy Sex | How it ravishes our souls. (Sept. 30, 2003)
Philip Yancey, the Rumor-Monger | The author's latest is written not for Christians, but for those on the "borderlands of belief." (Sept. 30, 2003)
Where Was God on 9/11? | Reflections from Ground Zero and beyond. (Oct. 23, 2001)
Living with Furious Opposites | Grace blossoms in affliction, triumph arises out of failure, hope abounds amidst struggle—and on it goes. (Sept. 1, 2000)
The 'Ample' Man Who Saved My Faith | G.K. Chesterton propounded the Christian faith with great wit—and sheer intellectual force. (Aug. 31, 2001)
The Bible Jesus Read | Without the Old Testament we don't properly understand God. (Jan. 11, 1999)
What's So Amazing About Grace (Part 1 of 2) | The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attatched, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. (Oct. 6, 1997)
What's So Amazing About Grace (Part 2 of 2) | The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attatched, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. (Oct. 6, 1997)

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